Eli Bokunewicz and Keaton Ellis talk trash, pressure each other and argue foul calls throughout State College’s practices.
They match up every day at point guard and rely on their different strengths to get the best of each other. When Ellis beats his teammate off the dribble, he tells him, “You can’t guard me.” When Ellis reaches too much, though, Bokunewicz is quick with the figurative whistle, telling his teammate, “Stop fouling me.”
Without the constant back-and-forth between the Little Lions point guards, coach Joe Walker said his team couldn’t be nearly as competitive at practice.
“I don’t think we’d be as prepared from game to game,” Walker said. “I don’t think we’d be able to play with the same intensity in terms of preparation.”
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Bokunewicz and Ellis are still setting the tone at practice as the Little Lions (21-4) prepare to face District 7 second-place finisher Butler (18-9) in the second round of the PIAA Class 6A tournament at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.
Ellis, a sophomore, comes off the bench and provides a spark while Bokunewicz emerged as a starter his senior season.
After playing sparingly last year, Bokunewicz asked Walker what he could do to earn more minutes. Walker told him that he was a great defender, but he needed to improve his jump shot.
This year, after an offseason of hard work and practice, he’s knocked down open shots and hit 79 percent of his free-throw attempts. And Walker said the guard has gone from committing turnovers as an unsure junior to being the Little Lions’ “floor general” as a senior.
“I know that last year I didn’t get as much playing time as I wanted, but I know that I didn’t deserve it because I came off the bench very timid,” Bokunewicz said. “I think this year I got my confidence up a little bit more and, for that reason, the coaches trusted in me. They had faith in me to handle the ball as the point guard.”
Bokunewicz expected to come off the bench and earn “some time” going into the season, but his role changed by the fourth game of the season at Harrisburg.
Ellis, who came into the year as the starting point guard, felt pain in his knees during football season and the start of the basketball season. Ellis learned he was suffering from Osgood-Schlatter disease, which occurs due to growth spurts. (Ellis said he grew from 5-foot-8 to about 5-foot-11 after the football season.) Doctors said rest was his only option, and he considered the possibility of missing 2-3 weeks to heal before returning in time for the playoffs.
Ellis chose to manage the constant pain instead by taking Advil before games, applying ice and using calf/thigh exercises.
“This is something special,” said Ellis, whose pain management plan means he plays about 3-4 minutes per quarter, “and I really wanted to be a part of it.”
With Ellis dealing with his knee problems, Bokunewicz made his first start in the Little Lions’ win over the Cougars, a crucial victory as State College went on to capture the Mid Penn Commonwealth title.
Bokunewicz doesn’t score much — he averages 2.1 points per game — but he finds his teammates when they’re hot. He still plays solid defense and serves as an example at practice, often finishing first during sprints. And not being afraid to throw some chatter Ellis’ way.
Ellis has learned from watching his veteran teammate.
“He’s really composed and, sometimes, I have a tendency to get out of control,” Ellis said. “He’s helped me just staying under control and just taking care of the offense and running the offense a lot better.”
Ellis provides a dynamic threat off the bench, getting to the rim for layups and creating for his teammates. Walker said most teams wish they had a player like the athletic guard in their starting lineup. Ellis, who averages 6.2 points per game, enters games ready to go all out for his 3-4 minute stretches.
“He has a little bit of reserve, and you can see at the end of the game when someone else is trying to guard him, he blows right by him,” Walker said.
Bokunewicz has been in that position while guarding Ellis this season. And, after practice Monday, the senior complimented Ellis’ quickness before playfully highlighting another staple of his game.
“He fouls a lot,” Bokunewicz said. “That’s impressive. I don’t know a kid who fouls more than him.”
Ellis didn’t attempt to argue, a smile revealing his guilt.
“He’s not lying,” Ellis said. “I like to reach a little bit.”
PIAA Class 6A boys’ basketball 2nd round
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown
What’s next: The winner plays Saturday against the winner of Pine-Richland (25-1) vs. Allderdice (19-8)